The King of Martyrs

Shaheed Bhagat Singh
(1907 - 1931)

Shaheed Bhagat Singh was a glowing star in the Indian sky who stirred millions with his brave battle against the British. He is the icon of Indian youth and one of the most prominent revolutionaries of Indian freedom struggle. A revolutionary ahead of his times, he took the lead in the underground armed struggle for independence over several years. His clarity of vision, determination, courage and devotion distinguished him from other leaders of the Nationalist movement. “Any sacrifice will be inadequate to accomplish the greatest aim of freeing the mother land” was his nationalistic ideology. His cry “Long Live Revolution” at the British Court of Law echoed in the minds of all Indians. His audacity and sacrifice transfixed the political air inspiring millions. It has been rightly said that, “Nothing in recent memory so captured the popular imagination as did the romance of Bhagat Singh. He has already become a legend and a short of legendary hero. Indian youth justly feels proud of him. His unique courage, his lofty idealism, his undaunted spirit would remain a light-house to guide many a…straying soul.”

Bhagat Singh was born into an eminent Sikh family in the village of Khatkar Kalan in Punjab to Kishan Singh and Vidya Vati on 27 September 1907. His ancestors were Khalsa Sardars who helped the Sikh rulers with life and blood in spreading Sikh Kingdom against the raging Pathans on the east and the repulsive English on the west. His family had many activists who were members in the pro liberation Ghadar Movement during World War I and patriotism deeply imbedded in their blood and spirit. Bhagat Singh was no exception; he was greatly influenced by his forefathers and started fighting for his motherland from a very young age. During his schooling at the D.A.V school in Lahore in 1916, he came into contact with renowned political leaders, Lala Lajpat Rai and Ras Bihari Bose. The ‘Jalianwala Bagh’ massacre that took place in 1919 intensely bothered him that he went there the next day – where the British Indian Army shot down 400 unarmed men, women and children - and collected soil from the spot to keep it as a memento. The incident reinforced his determination to drive British from India.

He became active in the Non-cooperation Movement by Mahatma Gandhi at school. He openly challenged the British by burning his academic books funded by the British Government. Gandhiji cancelled the Non-cooperation movement following the violent incident of ‘Chaura Chaura’ in 1922. Disappointed with this decision, Bhagat Singh withdrew himself from the non-violence movement and joined the Young Revolutionary Movement. By the age of 16, powered by the principles of Marx, Engels and Bakunin, he developed a secular and socialist vision for India. He joined National College in Lahore founded by Lala Lajpat Rai for his under graduation degree in Arts. The college was a hub for his revolutionary activities where he came into contact with revolutionaries such as Bhagwati Charan, Sukhdev Thapar, and many others. He formed ‘Naujavan Bharat Sabha’, a union of revolutionaries in Lahore and initiated the revolution in Punjab. Along with Chandrashekhar Azad, he formed ‘Hindustan Samajvadi Prajatantra Sangha’ in 1926 with an aim of establishing a republic in India using armed revolution. He also joined a radical group called the ‘Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’ and also started contributing write-ups to the magazine ‘Kirti’ of Kirti Kissan Party.

In February 1928, the British Government appointed a review commission called the Simon Commission headed by Sir John Simon. The Commission faced a lot of disapproval even before its landing in India as all its seven members were English. All political parties decided to boycott the Commission and a harthal was declared on the arrival day of the Commission on 3 February 1928 at Bombay. The Commission was greeted with black flags and cries of ‘Simon Go Back’. In Lahore, Lala Rajpat Rai led a large anti-Simon Commission student demonstration on 30 October 1928. Lala Lajpat Rai was brutally stabbed in the police ‘lathi’ charge and later succumbed to injuries after one month. Bhagat Singh plotted to avenge Lala Rajpat Rai’s death by killing Deputy General Scott, the British official who was responsible for the brutal deed. He shot down Assistant Superintendent Saunders mistaking him for Scott. Bhagat Singh fled to Lahore to escape from death sentence and went on hiding.

The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association planned to bomb the Legislative assembly in response to the formulation of Defence of India Act. The Act was a repressive measure of the British which gave more power to the police to arrest individuals and stop processions with suspicious motives. Bhagat Singh offered to throw the bomb where the meeting to the pass the ordinance was being held. It was a well-planned conspiracy, not to cause death or injury, but to draw the attention of the Government to stop its unjust measures against Indians. It was also decided that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt would court arrest after throwing the bomb. The aim was to “make the deaf hear” and use the court as a revolutionary platform. On 8 April 1929, they threw bomb onto the corridors of the assembly shouting “Inquilab Zindabad”. The bomb did not hurt anyone but as planned, they courted arrest and refused to run away from the scene. Bhagat Singh denied to hire any defence counsel for his trial. He went on hunger strike in jail to protest against the callous treatment of prisoners by the jail authorities. On 7 October 1930, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivram Rajguru were awarded death sentence by a special tribunal. He not only refused to move a mercy petition but also wrote to the Government that he was a revolutionary soldier fighting for the freedom of his country. He wrote, “If the Government thought that a truce had been effected between itself and the people of India, then it is legitimate that the soldiers of freedom should be set free. But if it thought that the state of war continued, then they may easily kill us.” His only appeal was that he might be shot dead by a squad of soldiers, as was only befitting soldiers of war. He and his comrades were hanged to death in Lahore Jail on 23 March 1931. Loud shouts of “Long Live Revolution” were heard from the jail before and after the executions. Their bodies were cremated on the banks of Sutlej in Ferozepur.

Death sentence judgement poster of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and others in 1930

Despite the fact that Bhagat Singh appeared in the India’s political scene only for a brief period, he became the spur of the spirit and hopes of a new India. He was a nationalist, socialist, democrat and republican – all in one. He lived for India and his only mission was to see his country free from the clutches of the British. Before his execution, he addressed the European Deputy Commissioner with a smile, “Mr. Magistrate, you are fortunate to be able today to see how Indian revolutionaries can embrace death with pleasure for the sake of their supreme ideal.” It is the sacrifice of such fearless martyrs that motivated other freedom fighters to fight persistently for the country’s independence. They still live on and their undying patriotism continues to inspire people who sincerely aspire and work for a better India.

My salute to all the martyrs of the country who battled selflessly and sacrificed their lives so that we breathe the air of freedom and dignity.

Jai Hind.

Cultural Rights vs Animal Rights

People around the world look at animals and birds in their own way. In India, from time immemorial, we see them as fellow beings with whom we share the earth. Animals have been traditionally considered sacred and are worshipped as vehicles of deities or as deities themselves in Indian culture. They are considered as impetuses of growth, spurs of love and harmony, and symbols of the culture itself. One of the aspects that makes Indian culture incomparable is its belief of sacredness of animals. Our culture respects and reveres life in all its forms.

E. M. Forster, a noted English novelist has opined that “Indians believe that birds, animals, and human beings – as indeed everything else – are an integral part of divinity. This is the central belief of all Indian religious and cultural thought and thus, all forms of life must be respected equally. Thus human beings and elephants, horses, cattle and birds like mynah, the peacock, the parrot and the koel are woven into many fables and religious treatises. Water creatures like crocodile, the turtle and fish are considered sacred and are associated with sacred rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna. India’s belief that animals, birds and sea creatures are sacred is a dominant and beautiful aspect of Indian culture for millenniums. They are earthly and spiritual companions of human beings and this equal sharers of the world and its resources.” Indian history have references that many famed emperors included animals and birds in their emblems and encouraged their artists to incorporate animal themes in their art and architecture. Many of the festivals of India are observed in honour of animals and to celebrate their power.

It is promising that our country has many organisations such as Animal Welfare Board of India, PETA India, In Defence of Animals India, Animal Rights Fund, People for Animals India, Pet Animal Welfare Society India, etc. to promote animal welfare and the right of all animals to be treated with respect. They play an instrumental role in ensuring animal safety and improving the quality of life of animals in the country. However, it is a let-down to note that some of their animal welfare measures hurt the cultural sentiments of the people. This includes their legal efforts to ban traditional animal sports such as Kambala of Karnataka, Jallikattu of Tamil Nadu, Maramadi of Kerala, Buffalo fights in Assam, etc. which are centuries old and a part of the cultural ethos of the regions. Among these, the ban of Jallikattu by the Supreme Court of India has created an uproar in the Tamil community and has dampened the spirit of the Pongal festival. The Supreme Court ruling in May 2014 in favour of a petition by the Animal Welfare Board of India states that “the sport known as Jallikattu is a barbaric event involving unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals.” The court has said that the bulls are “severely harmed” and declared it as an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act. The judgement refers the sport as “unnecessary and non-essential” and also as mere “amusement and entertainment” to the human participants and spectators. It also says that there is no sufficient evidence of the sport to have any religious importance.

Jallikattu is one of the oldest ancient sports in India and a traditional part of Pongal celebrations in Tamil Nadu, usually played on the second or third days of the harvest festival. The sport is a part of Tamil tradition called ‘Yeru Thazhuvuthal’ (meaning: to embrace bulls) and was very popular among Tamil warriors in the Sangam era. The term ‘Jallikattu’ was coined from the Tamil terms ‘salli kaasu’ (meaning: coins) and ‘kattu’ (meaning: package). The name changed to ‘Jallikattu’ later in the colonial period. The sport was a display of courage and according to folklores, the successful matadors were chosen as grooms for women during those days. Jallikattu is conventionally played by communities that take pride in their martial history. The taming of the bull on rampage without any weapons is considered as a mark of virility. The sport has three variants – Vati Manju Virattu, Veli Virattu and Vatam Manjuvirattu. Jallikattu bulls are fed a nutritive diet and given regular exercise to make them strong and competent for the event. They are much more than prized possessions for its owners and are treated with dignity and love. They name their bulls afters the Gods associated with their ancestry. The ambience of the event is electrifying with tens of thousands of people flooding the pitch with eager faces to catch a glimpse of the majestic bulls decked with coloured powder, ribbons, and garlands. The prize money is tied on the glistening horns of the bulls in a package. Young men, cheered on by the crowd, make attempts to pounce on the running bulls trying to hold the bull’s hump, move along with the bull without falling and getting hurt. The bulls try to get away and shake off the fighters. It requires valour, quick reflexes and a fleet foot to tame the bull and grab the prize money.

                                   Picture (a)                           Picture (b)

Jallikattu is more than 5000 years old and its history can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization making the sport one of the ancient living traditions in the world. Picture (a) shows a well-preserved seal made of stone which is on display at the National Museum, New Delhi. The seal was discovered in 1930’s at Mohenjo-daro and scholars comment that it can be dated to 2000 B.C and illustrates bull fighting predominant during the Indus Valley Civilization. It enlivens a dynamic scene of bull fighting showing a ferocious bull in action and men thrown in the air as they try to control it. Undoubtedly, the bull is the champion. Picture (b) is a stone carving which was found in Attur in Tamil Nadu in 1976 that portrays a bull taming event. The art shows a matador taking on a bull and snatching the prize tied on its horn. The sculpture is assessed to be more than 400 years old and is preserved in Salem District Museum, Tamil Nadu. There are a number of rock paintings in the village of Karikkiyur in Tamil Nadu that show men chasing bulls. Another cave painting that shows a man trying to control a bull, which is estimated to be about 1500 years old, has been discovered at Kalluthu Mettupatti between Madurai and Dindigul.

There are mentions of bull fighting or bull baiting in Mahabharata as well. The epic cites Lord Krishna controlling a violent bull in the atrium of King Kamsa’s palace. In another chapter, Lord Krishna tames seven bulls to marry Princess Naganajiti, daughter of King Nagnajit of Kosala Kingdom which later prospered into a tradition in the Velir Kingdom of Tamil Nadu. The tradition was observed as a Yadava festival where a Yadava boy had to prove his mettle by fighting a bull to marry a Yadava girl.  There are many proofs in literature that Lord Krishna started the practice of bull fighting about 2000 years ago. Nalluruththiranar, a legendary poet of Sangam Tamil literature has written about bull fighting in his poems relating to the pastoral culture of Tamil Nadu. In his poems, he compares the bulls to heroes – black bull to Lord Krishna, white bull to Lord Balarama, and so on. He has also given a graphical depiction of bull fighting and has written that it was practised by the Ayar community.

Bull fighting is a popular sport in Spain, France and Latin American countries. It is a ‘blood sport’ which often involves slow and painful deaths of the bulls causing violence against animals. The Spanish legislature has recently granted bull fighting constitutional protection in view of its significance in their cultural heritage. Jallikattu is totally ‘bloodless’ when compared to bull fighting in the West. Jallikattu, in all its three variants do not involve any cruelty to the bulls. The bulls are not killed unlike in Spanish bull fighting and fatalities suffered by the bulls are a rarity. Of course, accidents to human participants can happen, like in any other sporting events. It is disappointing to note that the animal rights activists see Jallikattu only as a sport and display of brutality.  The Supreme Court’s ban of Jallikattu damages the ethnic feelings of the Tamil community. Dr. S. Revathy, lyricist and activist comments on the ban as, “The reasons are one-dimensional. The decision has been made by people who have obviously not interacted with the families involved in this sport. They have been doing it for generations. I have personally seen them treat their animals with love and care. They shower money on them and their lives revolve around those bulls. Alleging mistreatment and abuse without any proof is wrong. In the name of animal rights, human rights are being violated.”

The Supreme Court’s judgement holds that Jallikattu was never a part of the Tamil history and fails to refer any literature related on the subject. Also, the lengthy judgement do not have a single excerpt on the rules of Jallikattu. The rules of the sport states that the bull should be caught only by its hump and the successful matador is supposed to hold on to a running bull for a minimum of 30 seconds or 15 meters. The Animal Welfare Board of India claims that Jallikattu involves abuses to the bulls like fracture of tail bones, ear cutting, biting and twisting of tails, beating bulls with sticks, forcing them to drink alcohol, poking bulls with knives, etc. However, these acts are totally aberrant to Jallikattu. The ban not only flutters the code of Tamil culture but also triggers mass slaughter of the Jallikattu bulls. It has been estimated that more than 1000 bulls were sold across the state after the ban came into effect in May 2014. There is a high demand for the meat as they are well kept and well fed with nourishing food. Jallikattu bulls belong to ‘Pulikulam’, an indigenous breed of cattle with distinct characteristics which is presently on the verge of extinction. Each villages used to have commercial breeding bulls for reproduction, once upon a time. But the demand for breeding bulls has dwindled when low-cost artificial insemination was introduced by the Government. This has caused a drastic fall in the number of uncastrated Jallikattu bulls across Tamil Nadu. The ban makes the situation even worse as the sale and slaughter of the bulls would lead to extinction of ‘desi’ cattle breeds and thwart genetic diversity of native cattle species.

Along with having an all-inclusive legislation to protect our animals, it is also essential that we uphold our invaluable tradition and culture. Article 51A (f) in the Constitution of India 1949 endorses safeguarding of the rich heritage of our composite culture. This includes valuing and respecting cultures from all strata of the society. The Supreme Court’s order to ban Jallikattu is indisputably a hitch to the free expression of Tamil culture. Jallikattu adds colour and life to the culture and tourism of Tamil Nadu. A ban is not a solution, instead, necessary precautions and guidelines to prevent any type of abuse to the bulls and injuries to the human participants and spectators should be implemented. Safe standards such as medically certified bulls, fenced arena, avoidance of cruelty to the bulls, skilled participants, well-organised events, etc. should be considered when organising the event. Our deep-rooted culture and tradition should not be sacrificed to cope with modern day standards. It is our responsibility to keep our glorious history unbroken for the coming generation.

Dr. Kumud Kanitkar, who has done an elaborate study of animal sculptures and motifs in Indian culture says, “The Romans saw animals as fierce creatures which had to be killed or controlled for human survival. The Greeks saw them as symbols of power living in a separate world of their own. But ancient Indians saw them as they should be seen – friendly, loyal and graceful.”